Campus / International / News / April 24, 2008

Guest speaks on Tiajuana’s sexualized identity

This last Friday Debra Castillo from Cornell University visited Knox to give a lecture on gender and identity in Tijuana Mexico, focusing particularly on the lives of sex workers in Tijuana. The Department invited Castillo for Global Studies and the Caterpillar Club Foundation.

Castillo opened with a discussion of the stereotyped name Tijuana has made for itself. Castillo said that many people see Tijuana as a “literal and figurative dump” for the bordering countries of Mexico and the United States. There is a “sexualized abundance of things and people,” she went on. In particular she points to the

Abuelita Bar in Tijuana as symbolizing this sexualized fantasy.

“It was the Mexico of the movies,” she said. At night foreigners often cross the border to take advantage of Tijuana’s red zone, la zona norte, where prostitution is legal.

However, this image is not indicative of the true life of many of Tijuana’s prostitutes. Castillo said that there were 1,500 women in prostitution, with 300 men and transsexuals in prostitution, that can be found in clubs, streets and parks. Prostitution, she said, is an effect of the lagging economy, with many people coming from the countryside to spend a few months in the city in sex work before returning home. The sex workers’ community has separated the workers into two groups, she explained: those that work for the families and practical goods, and those that work for things like drugs and alcohol.

Prostitutes whose money goes to feed their families justify their work because they “see the family better itself precisely because of the assistance they’ve been able to provide,” said Castillo. Sometimes these prostitutes will “hide [their] real jobs from [their] family, using a secondary source of income.” However, family members do not question each other about it, since especially in Tijuana the “silence [is] out of respect.”

There are health codes among the communities in Tijuana. Prostitutes are required to get a health card, however only about 500 out of the 1,500 women have them. There is “required condom use.” Disease, which Castillo said is perceived to be “female associated,” comes from women who do not use a condom when they are not working. “Unlike responsible workers, [these] men and women don’t take care not to spread diseases,” said Castillo.

The perceived idea of patriarchal dominance in sex is set off by the sex workers knowledge of practice. In the game of sex work, Castillo explained that the “women see clientele as exploitable objects…[where] both imagine they are telling a story.” The clientele see the women as both “living dolls for use… and queens for whose attention they compete.”

While the government and websites like the “world sex guide” are claiming Tijuana is “a taste of real Mexico in a setting that is clean and safe,” Castillo counters that this is not entirely true for the workers. While female prostitutes can get some protection from police and club owners, there is a “greater risk of violence” for the transvestite communities of sexual workers. Castillo said that this community is more prone to violence because they are “more exposed because of the way [they] express [their] sexuality.” Castillo went on to explain that the workers were “open about beating and widespread robbery” of both themselves and their customers, and were “by no means [just] passive victims” in the cases.

Transsexual workers are also more prone to police conflict. Not only are they singled out for violence, but there are also accounts of “forced sex with police.” Because the transvestite community is small, police can recognize them even when they are not working and will often harass them.

Castillo is a professor at Cornell University, specializing in Hispanic literature and theater, and gender studies. She has published ten books and nearly 100 articles.

Klayr Valentine-Fossum


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